Train crew size rule draws GOP and rail rebuke amid worker shortage


Republicans and railroads on Tuesday urged President Joe Biden’s railroad chief against a rule that could require at least two crew members on freight trains.

The administration is evaluating a rule that would address potential safety issues for single-crew trains, Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose testified Tuesday. The proposal sparked controversy before its release, pitting employers against employees.

“We definitely want to address the risks associated with fewer than two people,” Bose said during a transportation and infrastructure hearing.

Republicans and industry representatives argue that a crew-size mandate is unnecessary, while unions say cutting operators would endanger safety. Under the Obama administration, the FRA proposed a rule requiring railroads to operate with two people in a cab locomotive, but it was withdrawn under the Trump administration.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

A Union Pacific Railroad freight train is shown in St. Louis, Missouri, July 8, 2021.

representing Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said the rule was withdrawn because there was no data to show that additional crew members improved safety.

The administration’s proposal “might just fulfill another campaign promise to unions,” Crawford said. “We are suffering from the worst inflation we have seen in over 40 years and we are now talking about rising labor costs.”

representing Donald Payne (DN.J.) countered that Class I railroads already used mostly two-man crews, so “there wouldn’t be a major increase in labor costs.” Biden promised during the campaign that he would need two-person crews on freight trains.

The United States faces a tight labor market and freight railroads said they were already scrambling to hire additional workers amid recent supply chain issues.

Rule under review

The FRA sent the draft notice of the rule to the Office of Management and Budget, which Bose said is under review. The agency expects to get a “strong set of comments” once it is released, he said.

The agency conducted more research into crew size, which Bose says will be part of the record when the rule is removed. He declined to say when the rule will be released.

representing Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), which represents a district with shortline railroads, said he was concerned about the rule’s impact on those trains. If it goes ahead, it could hurt small businesses and force them to spend on “unnecessary workforce expansion,” he said.

“Any rule we propose must incorporate consideration for small businesses,” Bose said.

Unions and industry disagree

Unions have defended the proposal against industry concerns, saying reducing the crew would put workers at risk. Rail carriers are “determined” to risk safety by reducing or eliminating the two crew members who control the movement of trains, said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation-Transportation division.

“They’ll tell you it’s a matter of collective bargaining and there’s no data to support otherwise,” Ferguson told lawmakers. “Please don’t be swayed. Security is not and should never be negotiable.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents major railroads, recently raised concerns about the yet-to-be-released rule, arguing that the industry needs the ability to cut workers in the cabin if technology permits.

The industry also points to the lack of data linking crew size to safety. “There is no evidence that trains with one-person crews have a higher accident rate than trains with two-person crews,” said Cindy Sanborn, executive vice president and chief operating officer. operation of Norfolk Southern Corp., during the hearing.

A minimum crew size mandate “would make the railroad less competitive with other modes of transportation,” Sanborn said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at [email protected]; Robin Meszoly at [email protected]


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